A review of Nothing But Light by Barbara Schwartz and Krista J.H. Leahy

Reviewed by Jeri Theriault

Nothing But Light
by Barbara Schwartz and Krista J.H. Leahy
Circling Rivers
Paperback, 116 pages, $16.99, ISBN: 2370011403977, June 2022

In Nothing But Light, co-authors Barbara Schwartz and Krista Leahy weave various mythologies and art references to create a vision of the feminine divine. These exuberant poems honor the bodily experience of women and celebrate the creative force of the universe. The poets’ voices, woven together like their subject matter, form a cohesive and convincing whole.

Nothing But Light opens with an epigraph by Judy Chicago: “All ancient / peoples believed that the world was / created by a female Deity. . .” (The Dinner Party: From Creation to Preservation). Chicago’s well-known work is the subject of the title poem, “Of Two Minds” in which Schwartz and Leahy imagine that the Deity herself must be present amid the famous attendees and creations of fabric and vulva-shaped plates. The poets explore the goddess as spiritual presence in a series of questions:

must she have a body? To dwell among us? Could She 
be one of the chair’s four legs, splintering from 
the weight of all that beauty? Must a God
suffer, hold weight, to be
a God? Might She hold 
nothing but light? 

Though they seem to answer this last question in the affirmative by naming their collections as they do, the poets work against the concept of a purely spiritual divinity with corporeal and even earthy images of the goddess throughout this collection. “Wholewhore,” conflates the divinity with the earth itself: “[S]he is mountainous, pendulous/every limb, protuberance, mound of flesh / bigger than the one before.” With the turn of a line, the mountain-sized Gaia morphs into a human woman, “rocking / back and forth,” a movement that suggests sexual coupling or giving birth. With another turn the human mother comforting a baby again becomes the world-sized goddess.

[R]ock a bye baby and yes now please
legs open but no need for wide, no need to splay
to encompass the whole world, until the whole world comes calling

this pleasure is hers. 

These shifting actions blur the distinction between human and divine. “To splay” is the action of giving birth, while to “encompass” suggests containing “the whole world. And while the goddess is female in action and description, she is made up of “all of us, male, female, the loveliness in between.” 

Schwartz and Leahy use form to mirror the dichotomy of goddess as universe/goddess as human. Poems like “Wholewhore” sprawl with varying line lengths and stanzas, moving through wild turns, seeming to enact the restlessness of the earth and those who seek knowledge. Shorter poems punctuate the large, rambling poems with more terse depictions. Several of these shorter poems are renga, a Japanese form that alternates three- and two-line stanzas written by two poets.  “Wedding Day” declares a woman’s sensual and generative power in terms of the seasons, a kind of Persephone tied to the earth: “New bride, new seed, eternal / fire newly lit by plow, wick /and want, woman, wanton spring.” In “Moanday,” three goddesses, Gaia, Venus and Mary are so human, they “walk into / a bar” and enact a joke:

Gaia cries, On the
House! Venus cries, On the bar!
No matter the position,
cries Mary, you’ll never score. 

In another renga, “Daylong” the speaker extols the body by declaring herself, “grateful to live / in skin.” “My Kind of Goddess” refers to “the temporary/ habit of skin and bones.” The word “habit” suggests that which is habitual, but also a nun’s habit—a kind of uniform to mark one’s humanity, a humanity tied by its very nature to the divine. In the lexicon of Nothing But Light the body is a sacred garment, as suggested by the speaker in “Raw Materials” in which the speaker dresses in “skin consecrated/ by wind, age, death, birth, lust / acceptance, written word, unspoken.”

The poets further explore the ecosystem of the divine by equating the contained space of the womb with the vastness of the universe. The speaker in “They Say You Are Everywhere” acknowledges herself to be “finite” yet, she claims a “world womb within,” tying her very human self to the goddess.  Likewise, in “Garden Birth” the speaker, a stand-in for Eve, proclaims herself too large for the garden’s confinement: “I can’t /stop it, this growing.” She advocates an opening of the self, asking “Who said/ the Garden should be walled off / from the world.” The imagery of interior spaces—the garden, the doghouse, like the several houses of worship in this collection, is echoed in the cover art by Hilma of Klint. “Dove No. 2” uses a continuous swooping line to depict a nut-sized shape, then a larger one inside a heart shape within a larger circle. The piece suggests containment as well as wholeness. 

Nothing But Light teems with characters such as Eve and Gaia, Judy Chicago and Hilma Klint woven into this tapestry of feminine wholeness, a wholeness that embraces rather than excludes. I love the power and playfulness of these poems that center the physical within the context of spiritual questing.  In choosing to co-author this collection Schwartz and Leahy have created a tapestry of their own. The two voices merge seamlessly in this vibrant exploration of the female universe. 

About the reviewer: Jeri Theriault’s awards in poetry include the 2023 Maine Arts Commission Literary Arts Fellowship, the 2022 NORward Prize from the New Ohio Review, and a 2019 Maine Literary Award. She has twice been a finalist for the Bill Matthews Prize (Asheville Poetry Review) and was on the long list for the 2022 Perugia Prize. Her poems and reviews have appeared in The Rumpus, The Texas Review, The Atlanta Review, Plume, and many other journals. Jeri’s poetry collections include Radost, my red (Moon Pie Press, 2016) and In the Museum of Surrender, winner of the 2013 Encircle Chapbook Contest. In 2021, she compiled and edited WAIT: Poems from the Pandemic, published by Littoral Books. Jeri lives in South Portland, Maine. www.jeritheriault.com